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Russia: Ensure Safety of Rights Group’s Staff

Suspicious Visits Raise Fears for Security of Memorial Human Rights Center Workers

(Moscow) - The Russian authorities should take urgent steps to ensure the safety of activists from the human rights group Memorial and investigate suspicious activities that may threaten their safety, Human Rights Watch said today.

Unknown persons paid suspicious visits on September 3, 2009 to the apartment buildings where Oleg Orlov, chairman of the Memorial Human Rights Center, and Alexander Cherkasov, researcher on armed conflict for Memorial, have their permanent residential addresses. Both men, who are Moscow-based experts on the Caucasus, spoke out following the abduction and murder of Memorial's leading researcher in Chechnya, Natalia Estemirova, on July 15.

"We are deeply concerned about the safety of Memorial staff," said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "With three civil society activists murdered this summer and a rash of escalating threats, the Russian government needs to investigate these menacing visits immediately."

On the afternoon of September 3, an unknown man visited the apartment building where Orlov maintains a permanent address. A neighbor later told him that a man knocked on her door and introduced himself as a tax inspector, investigating whether anyone in the building was conducting unregistered business activity. The neighbor's suspicions were aroused when he asked questions about who lived in the neighboring apartments and appeared particularly interested in Orlov's apartment.

A similar incident occurred that morning at the apartment where Cherkasov maintains a permanent address. An unknown woman, who also identified herself as a tax inspector checking whether residents were conducting unregistered business activities, visited the apartment, spoke with Cherkasov's mother, and asked her about Cherkasov and his work.

Following these visits, both Orlov and Cherkasov called their district tax inspectorates and were informed that no tax inspectorate employees paid visits to their addresses on Thursday.

Other Memorial staff  have also experienced intimidation, harassment, and threats in recent weeks. On August 10, Zarema Sadulayeva and Alik Dzhabrailov, activists from Save the Generation, a humanitarian organization that assists victims of the conflict in Chechnya, were abducted from their office in Grozny and found murdered the next day.

The suspicious visits to the apartment buildings where Orlov and Cherkasov maintain permanent addresses occurred just one week before court proceedings are to open in a defamation suit brought by the president of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, against Orlov. The suit stems from statements Orlov made in the wake of Estemirova's murder.

Human Rights Watch called on Russia's international partners to press Moscow to make protecting human rights defenders a priority and to create a favorable working climate for civil society activists and independent reporters.

"The Russian government needs to find the people who brutally killed three activists this summer and to react immediately to any evidence of threats against human rights defenders," Cartner said.

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